Don't Follow the Bear: The Soviet Attempt to Build Afghanistan's Military

By Pomper, Stephen D. | Military Review, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Don't Follow the Bear: The Soviet Attempt to Build Afghanistan's Military


Pomper, Stephen D., Military Review


THE SOVIET experience in Afghanistan during the 1980s provides many lessons for contemporary military operations. The apparent similarity to the position the United States finds itself in today in Afghanistan and Iraq warrants giving some attention to Soviet lessons learned. Many of these 20-year-old learning points are negative. Put bluntly, the Soviets' inability to train indigenous Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) military forces was but one facet of a larger, well-documented failure. According to military writer Robert M. Cassidy, "Soviet military experts knew what to do to win in Afghanistan but did not do it because of a cultural reluctance, in other words, cultural inertia." (1) The United States should avoid following the bear into these woods. The proper training of the Afghan and Iraqi militaries is critical to U.S. success and to the region as a whole.

A discussion of the would-be Soviet trainers is important to understanding their failure to properly prepare Afghan forces after 1979. According to two authorities on the war, Mhommas Y. Nawroz and Lester W. Grau, Soviet success in Afghanistan required a train-the-trainer approach that would "reliev[e] the Afghan government forces of garrison duties and [push] them into the countryside to battle the resistance [while] strengthening the Afghan forces, so once the resistance was defeated, the Soviet Army could be withdrawn." (2)

Basically, the Soviets realized that training indigenous forces was vital for victory or, at least, for a successful exit strategy. They knew that securing Afghanistan's 29 provinces and diverse population would require significant local assistance. Probably because they had based their plan heavily on the use of Afghan soldiers, the Soviets imposed a 115,000-troop ceiling on their 40th Army, which had been tasked with the mission. Not surprisingly, the initial Soviet General Staff planning estimates concluded that it would take 30 to 35 divisions to secure the country--roughly 650,000 soldiers. (3) Still, a Soviet focus on Europe and the global situation at that time relegated the intervention to an economy of force mission.

Soviet Campaign Concept

The Soviets' overall concept for the Afghan campaign was ambitious, but clear:

* Stabilize the country by garrisoning the main routes, major cities, airbases, and logistics sites.

* Relieve Afghan government forces of garrison duties and push them into the countryside to battle the resistance.

* Provide logistic, air, artillery, and intelligence support to Afghan forces.

* Minimize interface between the Soviet occupation forces and the populace.

* Accept minimal Soviet casualties.

* Strengthen Afghan forces so the Soviet Army could be withdrawn after defeat of the resistance. (4)

The Soviet strategy was designed around a high-tech, mechanized force intended to win quickly and decisively; in other words, the force was trained and structured for a high-intensity war. Lacking light infantry, the force eventually adopted an ineffective "mobile bunker" mentality to "stabilize the major routes and cities." (5) Fortieth Army's four divisions, five separate brigades, and three regiments also entered the country without doctrine for the environment or for counterinsurgency; nor were they properly organized or prepared for such combat. Although units created tactics, techniques, and procedures to overcome some problems, the Soviets failed to devise a system for sharing these lessons learned across the 40th Army. Their materiel was generally sufficient--some of it worked well, some of it did not--but poor employment of the equipment in the country's diverse terrain eventually failed both Soviet and Afghan troops. (6)

The Soviets' inadequate doctrine and force structure led to vicious ad hoc tactics that increasingly alienated the Afghan people. The Soviets booby-trapped toys, emplaced extensive minefields, and instituted a systematic plan to terrorize civilians that included nothing less than a scorched earth policy.

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